Data analysis in Grounded Theory


Key to grounded theory is the idea that the researcher builds theories from empirical data. Strauss and Corbin (Strauss and Corbin 1998) define theory as “a set of well-developed concepts related through statements of relationship, which together constitute an integrated framework that can be used to explain or predict phenomena” (p. 51). The aim is to produce general statements based on specific cases (analytic induction). Essential is that the insights emerge from the data. It is a theorizing induction process. Other core features are the cyclic approach and the constant comparison.

The cyclic approach is already apparent during data collection, but also in data analysis. Data collection is followed by preliminary data analysis, which is followed by new data collection etc. After each analytic phase, the topic list is adapted and information is collected in a more directed way. The researcher tries to fill in blind spots in his analysis and the testing of hypotheses. Hence, data analysis is generally expected to be an iterative process. Especially in the grounded theory approach constant comparative analysis is emphasized. This means that overall data collection and data-analysis are not organized in a strict sequential way. Constant comparative analysis is a process whereby data collection and data analysis occur on an ongoing basis. The interview is transcribed and analyzed as soon as possible, preferably before the next interview takes place. Any interesting finding is documented and incorporated into the next interview. The process is repeated with each interview until saturation is reached. As a result it could be possible that the initial interviews in a research project differ a lot from the later interviews as the interview schedule is continuously adapted and revised. For this reason researchers have to clarify and document on how structured or unstructured their data-collection method is and keep memos of the process. Notes and observations made at the time of the interview are re-examined, challenged, amended, and/or confirmed using transcribed audio or video tapes. One expects that all members of the research team participate in a review of the final interpretation, in which data and analysis are again re-examined, analyzed, evaluated, and confirmed. The use of more than one analyst can improve the consistency or reliability of analyses.

Within the analysis the cyclic character is also evident from the constant comparison: the researcher tries to falsify his findings through the integration of new data and see whether the theory holds. Data is broken down in small parts (coding), in order to rebuild by identifying relationships between parts.

The analytic process of breaking down and rebuilding data in grounded theory happens in several steps:

  • Open coding

the identification of an initial set of themes or categories (called codes[1]). “The analytic process through which concepts are identified and their properties and dimensions are discovered”  (Strauss and Corbin 1998, p. 101). In this stage the data is divided into bits of text, which are given a label. This means the researcher isolates meaningful parts relevant to answer the research question.[see before]

  • Axial coding

This is a way of refining the initial codes. “The process of relating categories to their subcategories termed “axial” because coding occurs around the axis of a category, linking categories at the level of properties and dimensions” (Strauss and Corbin 1998, p. 123). Open coding results in a long list of separate codes. During axial coding all these loose ends are connected. This way concepts are identified.

  • Selective coding

This is the movement towards “the development of analytical categories by incorporating more abstract and theoretically based elements” (Pope and Mays, p. 71). “The process of integration and refining the theory” (Strauss and Corbin 1998, p. 143). During this third and last step in the analytic process concepts are linked, a theory is built. Often a theory is build around one central concept (category of codes).

During the coding process data has been reduced to meaningful conceptualizing categories. Nvivo (see XXX) offers several (visualization) tools (e.g. circle diagrams, charts, matrixes) to discover relations between categories.


[1] In the literature about Grounded Theory ‘codes’ is mostly used but they correspond to what we called ‘conceptualizing categories ‘ before [Add crossref]